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The Benefits-to-BS Ratio

It’s pretty simple math: When the Bad Stuff vastly outweighs the benefits, teachers leave the profession.


By Dave Reber

Dave is one of the many public education activists contributing to EdVoices, NEA’s exciting new community of bloggers committed to improving America’s schools. Go to NEA's EdVoices to read posts, share your thoughts, and become part of the debate.

Many people are passionate about public education. But passion has two extremes: love and hate. Those who value public education are quick to describe teachers as overworked and underpaid. Those who believe public school is a waste of tax dollars usually argue the opposite—teachers are overpaid and under-worked.

But there is no need for such arguments. The facts about the teaching profession speak for themselves.

In any job, there are benefits—competitive salary, prestige, and personal fulfillment, for example. There are, likewise, less pleasant aspects—low salary, long hours, and lowliness. How much unpleasantness a person will tolerate depends on the trade-off:  pay and prestige can make up for long hours. Conversely, personal fulfillment may compensate for a low salary.

This is the ratio of “benefits” to “bad stuff;” the B-to-BS ratio, if you will. A high B-to-BS ratio will attract and retain people in a career. With a low B-to-BS ratio, the opposite occurs—few people enter the profession, and many who do are quick to leave.

A 2009 study by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) examined demographic trends in the teaching profession.

The study found that as many as 30 percent to 40 percent of high schools have trouble filling vacant positions. Conventional wisdom had been that this teacher shortage was caused by too few new teachers completing degree and licensing programs to replace the graying teaching staff now reaching retirement age.

The CPRE study, however, found that the number of new graduates already equals or exceeds the number of retiring teachers, and has for some time. In any given year, the turnover rate of teachers is 15 percent—25 percent, but retirement accounts for less than 15 percent of that turnover.

Eighty-five percent of teachers leaving the profession are not retiring; they’re just leaving for more attractive careers.

The reasons cited included low salary, heavy work load, lack of autonomy, and lack of support from parents and administrators—in short, too little benefit and too much bad stuff.

Our nation’s teacher shortage is not a shortage of qualified teachers. Rather, it is a shortage of qualified teachers who are willing to offer their services under current wages and working conditions. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks of “elevating the teaching profession,” but then presided over the largest de-professionalizing, demoralizing, sweeter-carrot-and-sharper-stick public education policy in U.S. history.

This education agenda is beyond No Child Left Behind on steroids.  It has taken virtually every disproven strategy, every failed policy, and every autonomy-draining, de-professionalizing reform and stacked them on the BS side of the ratio.  Then, it tops the pile with a dollop of good old-fashioned teacher-bashing.

The future of our educational system and, ultimately, of our nation depends on us making fundamental changes to the teaching profession. Amplifying the failed blame and shame policies of No Child Left Behind isn’t the answer.  Neither are a national cookie-cutter curricula, pay-for-test-score contracts, or public defamation of dedicated teachers by the local paper.

Instead, we must fundamentally change the B-to-BS ratio of public school teaching.  We must stop treating teachers like children and reprofessionalize the profession, starting with professional salaries and professional autonomy.

Otherwise, we will continue our revolving-door system of staffing our classrooms—and one day discover no one is waiting to enter.

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